Lance Wins a Prize

Hey – Lance’s tale, Unfinished Business and Burning Greed, received an honorable mention in the 2010 Art Affair Annual Literary Contests in the Western Short Story category. (Sound of galloping hooves to your nearest bookstore, except alas the series has yet to find a publisher, oh well.)

Go Lance!

Hard-Boiled Looks and Overdue Books

A Lance Sidesaddle Saga

Contemplation of Eternity Original Goache by Lee Baldwin
By Lance Sidesaddle

A pale and merciless sky stretches to infinity over the vast Mogollon Plateau. Towers of summer thunderheads mass on the far horizon, dark undersides laced with ragged lightning. This land is barren, empty, save for two fast ponies rushing down the precarious face of a rugged escarpment, dodging among dark shadows of massive boulders. The lead horse carries two, a sinewy hombre in a black hat and a slim woman in leather with a fringed buckskin skirt. And although she hangs on tightly, she does not want to be with that man, or on that horse.

Their pursuer is a muscular fellow of rugged good looks, tall, capable, a man of heroic stature and unbending intent. Face set in purposeful lines, his squinted eyes seek out ahead for the best place to overtake the fleeing pair. Yah, it’s me, Lance Sidesaddle, defender of the peace, hot on their trail.

I must catch them, and soon, for less than a mile from the dust of Ol’ Paint’s thundering hooves is a sheer drop where the mesa was carved away by glaciers aeons ago. Durn those pesky glaciers. The woman does not want to be on that horse, but at this frantic pace among the rocks, to jump means certain death. The man, facing multiple life sentences for hoss stealin’, stage robbin’, and out-of-season apple bobbin’, has nothing to lose. To this nefarious all-purpose hoodlum of the Southwest, an innocent life means less than zilch. Shady Grady – the unprincipled cadis not a man. He is a twisted, ugly thing. Bleah.

I see my advantage as our horses hit the flat. Just a hunnert feet from where the mesa ends and the wild blue yonder begins, a small wooden cabin stands. I can just catch them by the time we reach it, and then…

I’ll get to that. For now, I’m aware only of the steady beat of Ol’ Paint’s mighty hooves, an insistent drumbeat across the hard-packed earth. I call on my trusty steed to pick up the pace and he responds magnificently. The gap closes as we near the cabin, but will it be in time?

A sudden distraction, shockingly out of place in this vast and arid wasteland – a beguiling, sensuous aroma. I peer into my lock-box memory but at the moment come up with nada. It’s too far out of context. But as I close in on the fleeing pair, I’m certain of one thing: in the rustic cabin ahead, something yummy’s in the oven.

At the last instant, Grady veers his mount sharply, directly into the cabin’s dark open doorway. I gasp – this is idiocy, suicide! The girl’s scream is torn away on the wind. The horse and riders are swallowed whole and vanish. For me there is no choice, for heroically follow I must. Ol’ Paint re-doubles his stride, plunging fiercely toward the pitch-black opening. I think I see movement inside, and ready my lariat for the capture. First I’ll yank Grady roughly to the ground, then the girl will fling herself into my manly arms, her tears of gratitude anointing my weathered face.

This moment of forgivable hubris evaporates with a soft pop as my trusty horse suddenly, from a full gallop, sits down, puts on the brakes, skids to a stop, comes to an abrupt halt, et cetera. I have a momentary split second to form the quizzical thought: And what about me?

The three laws of motion authored by Sir Issac Newton in the seventeenth century dole out my fate. An object in motion tends to remain in motion.

Me = Object.

Helpless, I remain in motion, right between Ol’ Paint’s pointy ears, perfectly through the uprights like a game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. I glimpse a noncommittal shrug from the noble steed as I fly past and into the cabin’s darkened interior, falling, falling, falling…

Everything. Goes. Into. Slow. Motion. I drift downward, prepared for a bone-shattering impact followed by an eternity of inky blackness. No matter. It will be worthwhile if I can save the girl. But I feel myself, as in a dream, make soft contact with what seems to be a long wooden table. My body in slo-mo drapes itself comfortably into a chair and across the cool surface in a friendly way, as if I’d been sleeping face-down for half the afternoon. A heavenly aroma graces my nostrils, an aroma that can waft only from a plate of Grandmother Sidesaddle’s chocolate chip cookies. Grandma, is that you?

I open my eyes, and see books. Bright lights, clumps of people with curious faces, and books. Thousands of books, shelves of books that stretch into the hazy distance in all directions, and right before me, a plate of perfect cookies!

Slowly I raise my head, disoriented, searching the eyes of the silent onlookers, looking in vain for Shady Grady and the girl. But no matter. My eyes fall to the glorious plate. MMM – mmm! I sit up alertly and extend a questing hand…

Mz. Maven Bookwhiz of the Preskitt Public Library adroitly snatches the plate away, bearing the life-giving confections out of my reach and to a place of repose in the staff lounge. She tosses a stern reminder over her shoulder.

“You were snoring, Mr. Slapswaddle. Silence in Your Public Library. Please.”

A chorus of giggles rises from the hushed assemblage as they begin to drift away to the other tables. I hear someone’s whispered remark, “She tried everything to wake that inflated putz. Cookies. How brilliant!”

I ignore the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and quiz myself: What Am I Doing In My Public Library? No matter. I rise from my chair, resolute, once again a figure of authority, totally in command.

“Nothing to see here folks. It’s over. Return to your homes.”

Muffled sniggers and shushing sounds from the vigilant staff follow me outside. I sit on a bench and take stock. It’s a beautiful day in Preskitt, town that I love. But no wonder I fell asleep – it’s the middle of the afternoon! And I, defender of the peace, prowl by night. What am I doing up at this hour? And then it hits me like an impertinent flash flood.

I was staking out the library to discover the criminal perpetrator behind an overdue book. Any one of Preskitt’s two-bit hoodlums could be responsible. These vermin are after the book because of an upcoming lecture by a noted detective, announced in the Yavapai College adult ed catalogue:

Apprehend your inner sleuth!

Visiting lecturer and noted case-solver, Shirley I. Buttinsky, will talk about admission to her Hard-boiled School of Detection. One session only, Dancing Divots Golf Club. Bring yourself up-to-date on Modern Methods to Foil the Criminal Mind. Prerequisite: Hard Boiled Crime Detection for Dimwits, by Ace Beagle, available at Preskitt Public Library.

Having met Mz. Buttinsky once at a lecture in Fargo, I am obviously far too advanced to spend time in such a class, but my sidekick powers awoke from their slumbers as I read the ad, and informed me politely that all the hoods in town will be there. Why? They will be thinkin’ they need to think like the forces of Good are thinkin’ – such as the cops, school crossing guards, and li’l ole me.

The Ace Beagle book is indeed a classic, and valuable. Pluswhich, anyone who studies its pages would know how to work it either way – good guy, bad guy. I’d been pleasantly surprised that Your Public Library boasts a copy. I’d come to peruse the book, but some Devious Perpetrator had got there first, lifted the valuable tome from the Crimestoppers section, and skipped, spoiling the class for everyone else. How antisocial. Hard-boiled Crime Detection for Dimwits is not for dummies.

But no matter. The class is tonight, I must obey the hour. I walk swiftly to my trusty truck Ol’ Paint in Preskitt’s totally up-to-date parking structure, and head off in the gathering dusk.

It is full dark when I reach the mucho-swanko Dancing Divots Golf Club. A slender crescent moon hangs over the black rim of distant hills. Nice meeting room close to the front desk, should hold about a dozen students. Or villains-in-waiting. I’m strategically early. I want to take the roll personally, it will read like a who’s who of nefarious local bad people. Hmm, I say to myself: Self, you must be a little too early, because you’re the only one in the swank meeting room. So I’m sitting here entertaining me with various crime-foiling methods and this interloper lopes in with a vacuum cleaner.

He’s got a nerve, this one, opens his fat yap and says, “Scuse me, buddy. Gotta sweep.”

I clear my throat. “Isn’t this the Hard-boiled Crime Detection lecture?”

“They moved it because of the turnout. Main auditorium down the hall.”

I amble on down to the auditorium. Man! Packed to the rafters it is, a hubbub of furtive conversation amid the exchange of sly winks and nods. I was right, this is Grand-larceny Central Station.

Preparing her materials on the small stage, a charming woman, quite a figure for a legendary crime-solver. Wow. Her off-pink pantsuit is tight in all the right places. Long auburn hair flows over smartly-padded shoulders with the luxuriant sheen of a caramel apple. Her glistening lips approach the microphone, delicately shaping the elegant words, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…,” thus proving she can count higher than your average sound engineer.

I clamp down on the fleeting thought that I’d like to invite her out for miniature golf and a chili dog, and focus on a glaring fact: when I met the legendary crime-solver in Fargo eight years ago she was gray-haired, a bit zaftig, and past sixty. So I can’t help wondering: exactly whom is this impostor, anyhow?

The last seat is taken, I’m forced to stand at the back of the hall. However this works to my advantage, I can see every one of Preskitt’s neer-do-wells, including – yes, there he is – Shady Grady, perched in a chair by the door directly beneath a big black hat. He’s hunched protectively over something bulky in his lap. Can it be? It certainly can. A library book! My sidekick powers tell me it’s either overdue or illegally purloined. But that distinction will have to wait.

The satin voice of the super-glam Mz. Buttinsky floats from the PA system.

“Uno, dos, tres, quattro, cinco, seis, siete…”

With a small smile, she clears her ladylike throat and begins her lecture. In seconds the crowd is raptly attentive, attentively rapt, totally in her thrall, clinging to every silken syllable she softly speaks. She moves through the basics: hunches, intelligent guesswork, clues, forensics. For an impostor, her talk is nicely paced. She slinks to and fro, fro and to. After about ten minutes, she throws a few puzzlers to the audience.

“Alright everyone,” Mz. Buttinsky, or whoever, continues, “here’s a situation for you. Suppose you are the teller of a bank, let’s say Bank One. Someone comes to your window and hands you a note which says, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free… oops wrong note. Which says: give me all your dough. Then you notice the note is written on a Bank Two deposit slip. What do you do?”

Shifty Sam raises his hand, “I know, I know. Tell him to fill out a Bank One withdrawal slip or go back to Bank Two.”

“Very good. Yes sir, you at the back.”

I already have my hand up. “Actually, for your information, no self-respecting bank robber would waste their time holding up that bank. They sent me a letter admitting they have insufficient funds.”

A chorus of agreement transforms into muffled titters. The lecturer smiles coyly and continues.

“Now suppose you are a bank manager. You arrive at work this fine morning and see a long chain attached to one of your ATMs. What do you do?”

This time Shady Grady gets his hand up first. “Look at the other end of the chain. If there’s a bumper attached to it, then – ”

“Right,” I interject commandingly. “Then advertise the bumper and the chain for sale, cheap. The crooks will call you.” I fold my arms confidently, trying not to appear too smug. Let them chew on that for awhile.

Mz. Buttinsky throws a pert feminine scowl my way. Grady turns around and says petulantly, “No fair, my hand was up. What I was going to say is, look on the bumper and write down the license plate to tell the heat, er, I mean, the nice policemen.”

“Very good, class,” Mz. Buttinsky beams at Grady. The injustice! If only she knew?but on she goes. “Now we will have a break in the lecture, during which all of you will write a short exam.”

Groans, and the usual shuffling as test papers are handed out, pens are borrowed, assorted attendees dash for assorted rest rooms. Mz. Buttinsky announces that we have thirty minutes, and departs the stage. All heads bend to the task of completing the short exam. It’s quite simple for me, I reminisce over my long and illustrious career as I read it through. Then I hit my worst nightmare: an essay question. Write a concise short essay on cleanliness, mystery, and religion.

I throw down my pencil in disgust, thinking ‘Holy Smoke, I haven’t had a bath in 35 years, how can you expect me to remember now?’

Without warning, my super-sleuth intuition nudges my elbow and I look up. A-ha! Our Mr. Shady Grady is not in his seat! And our fair instructress is likewise nowhere to be seen. Undetected, I slip out the rear exit.

Outside, all is dark. And quiet. Too-o-o-o quiet. But I hear distant, whispered voices, and can barely discern two figures standing near a shadowy row of golf carts in a pool of dark. As I creep stealthily toward them in the dimness, my foot encounters a discarded Atkins Shake. The empty can rolls toward the furtive pair, rattling and bouncing against the curb. Abruptly the two leap into a golf cart and whirr away on the path toward the first tee.

I, too, leap upon a waiting vehicle.

A dark star-flecked sky stretches to velvet infinity over the Dancing Divots Golf Club. Towers of summer thunderheads mass on the far horizon like stacked bagels. The darkened greensward is barren, empty, save for two vehicles lumbering along the smoothly-paved cart path, dodging between the arcs of spray cast by ominous sprinkler heads that pop from the turf and squirt menacingly in all directions. The lead vehicle, a golf cart, carries two, a sinewy hombre in a black hat and a slim woman in a smart pantsuit. I think I hear the smart pantsuit reciting T.S. Eliot, but the words are torn away on the wind. Although she hangs on tightly, she does not want to be with that man, or on that golf cart. Or. Does. She. Really?

Their pursuer is a hefty fellow of once-rugged good looks, formerly of heroic stature. Face set in purposeful lines as he tries to control his roaring vehicle, this man’s eyes squint through billows of smoke for the best place to overtake the fleeing pair. Yah, you got it – me. Kaff kaff.

In the rush to pursue these evildoers from the parking lot, I’d leapt astride the last in a lineup of shadowy vehicles. I thought I’d copped a small airplane – stubby shapes protrude from the sides at a rakish angle – but actually it’s a three-bank lawn mower. Bravely I accept the hand Blind Fate has dealt me. This will surely be an epic struggle – noisy, smoky internal combustion versus silent, clean electric power – if I can avoid slicing myself to ribbons in the process.

I must catch them, and soon, for less than a chip shot from my wildly whirling blades is a sheer drop where the cart path was shorn away by developers hours ago. Durn those pesky developers. The woman Shirley surely does not want to be on that cart, but fleeing between the hissing sprinklers at eleven miles per hour, to jump would mean certain drench. Facing multiple slaps on the wrist, the teacher-impressin’, up-stagin’, library-book robbin’ driver has nothing to lose. To this nefarious all-purpose hoodlum of the Southwest, an overdue book means less than zilch. Shady Grady – the unprincipled cad – is not a man, he is a twisted, ugly thing. Most likely with a twelve handicap. Bleah.

But hark! Borne on the otherwise-fragrant evening breeze, a sudden olfactory disturbance, shockingly out of place in this lush golfer’s paradise. I rummage through my mental lock-box and come up with – yes, there it is! A porta-toidy. I can just catch them by the time we reach it, and then…

I’ll get to that. For now, I’m only aware of the mower’s powerful motor, the hum of the studded tires on pavement, the insistent sharp sibilance of the menacing metallic blades. I drive my foot more roughly against the pedal, calling on my trusty steed to pick up the pace and it responds magnificently: a quarter-RPM more. The gap closes as we near the porta-johnny, but will it be in time?

Then Grady makes a deadly blunder. He sees the muddy ditch and veers off the paved surface, up the gently sloping green. The conveyance slows to a virtual halt, its rear wheel spinning against the slick grass in soggy futility. And in that instant, I pounce.

I drive my smoking, whirling contraption gently but firmly against the golf cart’s nose, and their machine begins sliding backward. Both of them are standing now, frantic, looking for a way to jump clear, but there is no escape. Grady finally makes his move and leaps from the cart, backward, away from the gnashing blades. But he fails to see that I have fiendishly pushed them hard against the dark opening of the porta-biffy. He vanishes from sight with a blood-curdling yell of anger and resignation that fades from hearing.

I shut off the motor and all is still, save for the hissing sprinklers and distant curses echoing from beneath Grady’s big black hat, discarded and alone on the porta-pooty’s seat. The woman is standing in the golf cart, clutching the roof. Even in the faint starlight I can see she’s lovely. Take away the circumstances – her foul foul plot, her impersonation, the stolen library book – and I could see asking her out for a bowl of chili. Sorry toots, I have a mission.

“Alright, Mz. Impostor, or whomever you may be,” I snarl with unshaven masculine innuendo. “I need to see Your Library Card.”

Sadly, she can only shake her head. That clinches is – without a Library Card, my last hope for her is inexorably dashed.

“Alright, then hand over the book. Your clever little game is up.”

She bats her false eyelashes coquettishly, but her heart’s not really in it. Meekly, she extends a large heavy-ish object into my waiting hands. I flip on my patented Lance Sidesaddle Spy-Lite, and my eyes behold the sacred cover. The title alone speaks volumes: Hard-boiled Crime Detection for Dimwits, by Ace Beagle.

Car headlights rake across the green, coming downhill toward us through the blackness. The flashing reds and blues atop the white cars give the impression a birthday cake is floating toward me through the night.

In seconds we are surrounded. Detective Nabster approaches.

“Sidesaddle! What have you got?”

“Arrest her, Frank. She’s impersonating the famous detective.”

“Which one?”

“Shirley I. Buttinsky.”

“No, really, you were doing fine.”

“Anyhoo, she enlisted Shady Grady to steal this valuable book from Your Public Library. A con for a con. You’ll find him under that hat in there.”

It is over within minutes. The pert pretender gives me an assortment of hard-boiled looks as she’s led away in handcuffs. The smart pantsuit merely snubs me. I don’t mind. But I do begin to wonder – why is it whenever I meet someone I really like, she’s about to be arrested?

The disingenuous duo is placed in separate patrol cars. Soon the birthday cakes recede over the rise and I am once again alone in the dark. Alone that is, except for Detective Nabster’s parting words ringing in my ears:

Nice work, Sidesaddle.

I’ll have them engraved on my arm forthwith. Grateful yet manly tears well in my eyes. At last, a gram of respect from the local gendarmes – and he actually pronounced my name correctly!

Once again I allow myself to feel the warm glow of satisfaction, the sense of lending a helping hand, the humble pride of the unsung hero. The girl is gone, but her devious plan has been foiled. Preskitt, the town I love, will pass another night in peaceful dreams. Mz. Bookwhiz at Your Public Library will be grateful to get the Ace Beagle volume back. MMM-mmm! I can almost smell that plate of cookies.

My single spur chimes a contented rhythm as I climb the rise, heading for my trusty truck in the peaceful Arizona night.

Lance Sidesaddle's Funnybusiness Card

Lonely Hearts and Serious Side Effects

A Lance Sidesaddle Saga

Down the Row, Repainted Photograph by Lee Baldwin
By Sir Lancelot Sidesaddle

A warmish September afternoon on Courthouse Plaza lingers on towards sundown. But while work is ending for most honest Preskitt folks, my job as defender of the peace is just beginning. Yah, you know me –

Without warning, the desk telephone rings in my office in this fleabag hotel overlooking Whiskey Row. On a hunch, I pick it up. Could be something big.

“Lance Sidesaddle, private detective,” I quip.

The feminine voice on the other end is faint, dusky, mysterious, breathy, silky, alluring, wraithlike. And so on.

“Mr. Sidesaddle?”

She has me there. Honesty is the best policy. I have no choice. “Yes.”

“You should get some air, go outside. See the parade.”

I begin to formulate a quizzical reply but the receiver clicks and the line goes dead. As dead as a doornail. Following the example of countless old private eye flicks, I twiddle the cradle a few times, shouting, “Hello, Operator, I’ve been cut off!” It doesn’t work this time either. But I do get this weird cold shiver up my neck.

But no matter. Parade. The secretive dusky alluring and so forth feminine voice had mentioned a parade. Outside. Hmmm. Could mean in the street. On a hunch, I amble downstairs and out onto Preskitt’s fabled Whiskey Row.

The late afternoon sidewalk crowds are thick, lining both sides of Montezuma Street. I jostle my way through the happy throng to a good spot. A brass band is strutting by, in full uniforms with high plumed hats, bass drum deeply hinting at the beat of a Sousa march. The band is followed by a phalanx of cowpokes on high-stepping horses under a broad banner: Ghost Riders in the Sky. Following them, an authentic 1800s stagecoach, eight massive Clydesdales driven by a hard-bitten leathery cowpoke. On the seat beside him sits a gorgeous blonde in a white bonnet, drop curls and blue gingham, just folding up a tiny cell phone. She looks at me, all smiles, then goes on waving to the crowd. Maybe it’s the packed bodies and the heat, but as the coach turns a corner, I can swear I see daylight under the big spoked wheels.

I shake it off. I’ve missed most of the parade – all that remains is a line of classic 1920s cars leaning on their oooh-gah horns, a few dispirited Boy Scouts following up with pooper-scoopers, and it’s over. The happy crowd begins to disperse, milling about, heading back into the shops, restaurants, and refined drinking establishments.

That mysterious ghostly alluring voice. Why had someone wanted me to see the parade? Obvious, really. My 80-hour workweeks as defender of the populace are legendary. Likely it was a civic-minded Preskitt citizen, concerned for my social cultivation. With a warm fuzzy glow all over, I head back inside and up the stairs.

I know something is wrong the moment I approach my office in the silent corridor – smells like a hot brandin’ iron. Vague rustlings from behind the door, through the clouded glass abstract shapes move. In the distance, a horse neighs nervously. I get an instant vision of three beefy men about to pound me senseless.

But this time I am ready. I reach into my mental lock-box of self-defense strategies and come out with a doozy?a surprise shoestring tackle as I burst through the door, which will put these louts finally at my mercy.

Crouching silently, I slowly twist the doorknob until I feel the latch pull clear, then shove the door open with all my might and launch myself forward, low to the floor. Surprise is on my side.

It’s a midget. His decidedly un-midget-like fist is waiting, and I remain obligingly committed to my trajectory until my nose greets his fist with a polite howdy-do.

When I regain consciousness, I find myself lying in the strewn debris of my useful crime-solving trivia. Why would someone toss my office? Rubbing my tenderized and flattened schnozz, I wonder aloud how a midget can have a fist as hard as an anvil.

“How?” echo the walls.

That burning odor – smells like Ol’ Paint’s clutch on my fave shortcut over Granite Mountain. It wasn’t anything like the sage and rare cedar barks I sometimes burn during my incantations. But looking at my topsy-turvy digs, a strange cold chill slithers up my spine.

When I finally set my desk and chair upright, I dig my answering machine from a haphazard pile of vintage Mad magazines. The alert light beckons balefully. The single message is brief, to the point, and ominous. I recognize the voice at once, one of my clients for telephone dating advice.

“Lance, I won’t be able to continue our sessions, enjoyable as they have been. No, I’ve decided to end it all. I did meet a wonderful lady, thanks to you, but she’s moving on. It’s just not worth the struggle to start again. Goodbye, you bonehead. By the time you hear this I’ll be extinct. But I’ll be in a better place, wearing a toe tag.”

The message fades away into spooky silence.

I sit and stew awhile. Mighty Mike, owner of that very voice, is one of my Lonely Hearts telephone clients. Yah, it’s a sideline, but over the years I’ve helped a few folks find a little romance in this crazy world. A little hoss sense, a few Indian spells, some burning herbs and hard-to-find rare barks. Like my other lovelorn clients, I’ve never met Mighty Mike, it’s all confidential. But he followed my advice, seemed to be getting results, and always sent his check. He had been upbeat the last few times we’d talked?but now this. And it’s up to me to stop him from doing something foolish!

What to do? Mighty Mike’s morbid message meant moribund mortality. But there are some clues. Toe tag! In a better place wearing a toe tag. What can that mean? Then I notice the crisp white card stapled to my leather vest.

City Morgue
You Stab ‘em, We Slab ‘em.

Curious. Piquant. Then the realization creeps up on me like rosy-fingered dawn over Thumb Butte?maybe I should check out the City Morgue. Before leaving, I look around for anything hot, but nothing can explain the burnt smell that still lingers in the heavy air.

Dark has fallen when my boots hit the stained but fabled sidewalk of Whiskey Row. The air is fresh with evening. Gone are the parade crowds, the languid shoppers from hither and yon. The few folks still about walk purposefully, quickly, like they’re going somewhere in a hurry.

I duck through the alley to Preskitt’s fab new parking structure on McCormick and fire up Ol’ Paint. Soon I’m ghosting through the darkened streets as quietly as the rusted-out mufflers will allow. The morgue is housed in a shadowy old stone edifice on a dead-end street. Ha! The macabre jocularity of these city planners! I’ve been here before, on the Halloween tour, but I’d never broken in. It’s easy enough. Who the heck wants to get into a morgue?

The place is deserted, quiet, dark, foreboding, with a frisson of spooky as hell. I move through the shadowy corridors by instinct, without a sound, until I find myself in a silent, dimly-lit room. That dimly-lit room. Sheet-shrouded shadowy shapes slumber silently. I walk among the quiet tables, viewing the plain white identification tags attached to protruding toes, inwardly paying my respects to the dear departed.

Hmmm. This guy. I’d heard of him. There’ll be many a dry eye now he’s gone. Oh, and this one donated his body to science. I’m sure his brain alone was worth every last penny. This one! Holy smoke, I’d of cried at his funeral – he owes me twenty bucks. Or was it owed? Then I come to something out of the ordinary, a horse of another color, something else again.


My finger brushes the toe. Curious – it feels a lot like wood. In fact, so does the foot. Not only that, the ankle looks and feels like a broomstick. On a hunch, I look at the other one. Another broomstick. I step to the head of the covered form and gingerly raise the shroud.

It’s the midget.

His eyes are open, looking straight at me in the dimness. When he speaks, the voice is instantly familiar.

“Took you long enough. Howdy, Lance, I’m Mike DuPre.”

Mighty Mike, my Lonely Hearts client. We shake hands solemnly. I need a moment to think. I’d been giving telephone dating advice to a midget. Inwardly, I vowed to treat my client and this situation with utmost dignity.

“You sounded bigger on the phone. But what are you doing here?”

“The girl on the stagecoach, you saw her, right?”

“Blue gingham. Blonde. Sure.”

“That’s Evelyn, my girlfriend. Sort of. She’ll be here in a minute.”

“Why sort of? And why did you beat me up?”

“Beat you up? You mashed your face into my fist. Still smarts.”

Now I’m getting angry. “There is no gol-durn difference. And you shouldn’t have been rooting around in my private office.”

“When I want your opinion on manners I’ll beat it out of you. I was trying to erase my message. Wanted to talk to you before we came here. Was digging through the rubble to find your machine. You got there too soon. Then you were out cold, so the City Morgue card was simpler.”

“Rubble! Now wait a minute. My office is neat as a pin. Usually. Once in a while.”

“Not when I got there. Thought that was how you liked it. What was that burning smell?”

I shake my head. “But Evelyn, does she work here?”

“No! That’s just it. Ever since you set us up, this is the only place she’ll see me.”

I try to keep an open mind?this could be the latest thing in trendy night spots. “You mean you’ve been dating at the morgue?”

“You worked that spell, remember? While I was on the phone last time. That very night I got a call. From her. We talked and talked. It seemed like we’d known each other forever. So I met her that night. Here. We’ve been seeing each other ever since. But something is weird. She’s saying she has to go away now.”

Mighty Mike’s narrative is cut off by the sound of approaching bootheels in the empty corridor outside.

“Hsst! She’s here.”

“I’ll just leave you two lovebirds to your – ”

“No, you dolt, you gotta stay! You gotta keep her from leaving.”

“Sorry, loverboy. That part’s up to you. See ya.”

“You’re a good guy, Lance, but if you were any dumber, I’d have to water you twice a week. There was something wrong with your spell! You have to fix it.”

But we’ve used up our allotted time arguing. The sound of bootheels is louder now, right in the room with us. But the door hasn’t opened! Mike’s head is up, tracking the sound. So am I. But there’s one problem. Although the ladylike clump-clump of boots moves closer among the dear departed, there is nothing to see. A cold breeze catches my cheek, raising gooseflesh and a sudden sense of anxiety. The footsteps stop, the echoes die away.

Just when I’m thinking the hairs on the back of my neck can’t go any higher, up they go another notch. A swirling of mist in the dimness, vague at first, then slowly gaining clarity, until –

Blond and radiant, wearing the same white bonnet and blue gingham farm dress she’d worn for the parade, Mike Dupre’s girlfriend Evelyn stands on the other side of the gurney, smiling at both of us.

“Mr. Sidesaddle, I’m Evelyn Clark.”

She extends an elegant hand. My eyes go way wide. My own hand, numb like a sleepwalker, reaches out. I expect to touch no more than a cool puff of air, but the hand I hold is real, solid. It’s also warm and ladylike.

“Lance Sidesaddle,” I manage to get out. “Private detective.”

Mikey-boy, sitting up on the gurney, is looking from one of us to the other with an incredulous expression.

“You mean you can see her?”

“Of course he can see me, sweets.” She gives Mikey’s cheek a soulful smooch.

I begin to regain a modicum of composure. “Now somebody start talking. From the beginning.”

Mikey-boy starts to say something, but Evelyn takes his hand, smiling dreamily at him.

“Please, Michael. Allow me.”

Mighty Mike, gazing into her eyes, only nods dumbly. His expression is dopey-dreamy too. They’re obviously stuck on each other. Evelyn continues.

“Mr. Sidesaddle, when Michael came to you about his dating emergency, as he called it – ”

“I wanted to meet someone – someone very nice,” Mikey-boy gets in.

“Precisely, sweetheart. Anyway, when you began helping Michael, you used a variety of techniques – confidence-building exercises, verbal approaches, you call them pick-up lines, I believe. You also used a number of ancient chants. One in particular, am I right?”

I have to think about that. True, I do draw from an extensive bag-o-tricks when talking to my Lonely Hearts clients. And she’s right – I have one old book of Indian spells. They’re mostly about the weather, good harvests, et cetera. But there is one, one in particular –

“Alright. There is one incantation. I prefer to call it a suggestion. To the spirits. It’s used when a mother is looking for her child, when a woman wants to have a baby, when lovers want to be together. Using it to help Mike here find his soul mate – that seemed to be a fair application of the, er, suggestion.”

Her intelligent eyes dance with the idea. “I see. So might you have taken this spell?”


“This suggestion – beyond its own limits?” Unlike Mighty Mike, Evelyn is too refined to say I’d screwed it up royally.

I look at Mikey-boy, feeling a little blank. “I dunno. Coulda. Can’t be sure.”

“Mr. Sidesaddle, there is much you don’t know. Michael here almost understands it, though I’ve told him very little. Here’s what I think happened. Back in the days when Prescott was a bustling mining town and the territorial capital, Whiskey Row was mostly saloons. Many of the saloons had rooms up above, some used for – ahem – nefarious purposes.”

She looks down at her tightly clasped hands, then goes on.

“One of the rooms above Whiskey Row was occupied by a fortune teller, a card reader. She was my auntie June. Although the fire of 1900 consumed that building and most of Whiskey Row, the building standing there today is quite similar in layout. Her room was in precisely the same location as your office, Mr. Sidesaddle.”

Evelyn pauses to let this sink in. My head is reeling. Mikey-boy is getting better at his dumbfounded look. My sidekick powers awake from their slumbers, perform a few rapid hexadecimal calculations, and toss me a doozy.

“So you’re from – ” I begin.

“The past, Mr. Sidesaddle?” Her smile is angelic. “That’s not quite the concept, but it will suffice. My family occupied a house on Mt. Vernon street in 1905. The year I died.”

“Died!” yelps Mighty Mike. “In 1905?” He’s clearly distraught. Here he’d found a lovely, intelligent woman, the love of his life, but she had died many years before he was born.

Thanks to me, Yours Truly, the Village Idiot.

Evelyn takes Mikey-boy’s hands in both of hers. Gazing at him tenderly, she says, “I don’t belong here, Michael. Meeting you has been the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. But I have to go back.”

There’s more like that. I try to make myself invisible while she and Mikey-boy talk, grappling with the inevitable. The facts are incontrovertable. In fact, the day I worked my gol-durn incantation was 100 years to the hour after Evelyn died. Mike’s in love with an angel, in more ways than one. Many fervent hugs and tender smooches later, they turn to me. Their faces share a look of worn resignation. And heavy disappointment. They’re a perfect match, a century apart.

“Can you – ” Evelyn begins.

“Fix it, you plantbrain?” Mikey finishes for her. She shushes him but they both eyeball me piercingly.

I look from one to the other with a heart of lead. Theoretically it’s possible to reverse any spell, any suggestion. But that’s assuming I’d performed the steps correctly in the first place. Masking any inner self-doubt, I say to them, “I have to do this at my office. You have until sunup.”

As the silent edifice fades away in Ol’ Paint’s mirrors, I get it. It was while performing the original incantation that I’d done something wrong. I know what it is, and I feel like a fool. A shortcut. A stupid substitution because I’d been missing a certain hard-to-find bark. I’d thought that intention alone would impress the spirits, but now, I can almost see their laughing faces swirling about the truck. Parked now on the dark and deserted Whiskey Row, I reach under Ol Paint’s seat for the carefully-wrapped package, and make my way upstairs.

With all that’s happened this night, I don’t fully register that my office is now, amazingly, neat as a pin. I unwrap the old book with its cracked leather cover, and open it to the page. I begin reading the old dialect aloud, hoping I have the pronunciations close to right. In a large brass ashtray I build a small blaze of sage and heather, then at the last throw in a few shavings of rare cedar bark, shouting out the final words of the chant with a gusto I hope is convincing. The flame leaps brightly, then dies away to black ash and a thin trail of gray smoke.

Now there is nothing to do except wait. But I feel deep down that it worked. Mighty Mike will be back, alone, to express his dissatisfaction, and I’ll just have to put up with it. I know now what I’d done wrong. This time, I’d done the spell correctly, but before – I’d been taking a chants on love.

As my bootheels fade into the swirling mist of Courthouse Plaza, I make a promise to myself. If I ever, ever perform another spell, I sure won’t be using any plastic wood.

Lance Sidesaddle's Funnybusiness Card

Love Her Wicked Little Schemes

A Lance Sidesaddle Saga

Repainted photograph by Lee Baldwin

By Lance Sidesaddle

Sundown. End of a hot July day in the high desert. But while work is over for most honest Preskitt folks, my job as defender of the peace is just beginning. Yah, you know me-Lance Sidesaddle, private detective.

So I’m here in my office in this fleabag hotel overlooking Whiskey Row. Once again, the air conditioner’s on the blink. Feet on the desk, toes of my snakeskin boots point accusingly at the motionless ceiling fan. My dark-stained chaps hang limply in the oppressive heat.

The door knocks. A blurry form visible through the clouded glass.
I summon my most professional tone to call out, “Tain’t locked.”

Through the door waltzes this dame, this chick, this doll, this babe. All decked out in a snappy blue suit. Her hips have the smooth curves of a peach in brandy sauce. I slowly push my Shady Brady higher up my noggin, the better to see her with.

The brim of her matching hat brushes the doorframe on both sides. She’ll have to be careful in a high wind. But her blue suit fades to a pale shadow when I get a load of those eyes. Wowie-zow. One deep, soulful look into those sparkling blue orbs and a guy could hear wedding bells. I plug my ears, sparing her but the slightest glance.

“How do you do, Mr. Sidesaddle? My name is Mrs. Delbert Four-Woody The Third. I would like to employ you to solve a-um, er problem. With my husband. He’s been acting strangely.”
So. A society dame. Last thing I need. Somehow these cases always lead to a guy with a golf cap in a Mercedes convertible.

“Just throw the trash offa that chair,” I drawl with a casual gesture. But my detective senses are alert and racing wildly. The way she says um er problem tells me this is one a them cases. The kind you hafta solve without talking about. Yeah, them. As in with decorum, breeding, civility, dignity, respectability, etiquette, tact, punctilio-.

She parks her demure derriere primly in my beat-up guest chair but leaves the motor running. I know then she’s in a rush. As she talks about the um er problem I watch her closely for clues. But I also become aware of something else-that angelic face is calling up long-forgotten sensations. You know. Feelings. Yah, those. The kind you get when you whitewash your girlfriend’s name on a bridge abutment. I listen with professional aplomb.

“Mind if I light up?” she asks with a soft smile.
Surreptitiously, I switch on my No Smoking sign. “Naw,” I say graciously. In the rosy neon glow she pulls a white matchbook from her purse.

“Want one?” She holds the deck toward me.

I shake my head. “Swore I was gonna start this year, but ain’t yet got around to it.”
“This place could use a woman’s touch,” she remarks, looking around at my extensive collection of useful crime-solving trivia. Is she stalling, changing the subject from embarrassment? Or is she hinting at something deeper, more lasting? I smooth my moustache and cooly wait her out.

“Here,” she breathes seductively, handing me a crisp white card. My heart picks up the beat like hooves rounding the clubhouse turn at Yavapai Downs. Her private number, no doubt. I knew it. She’s making a pass. And she ain’t been in my office sixty seconds. I eyeball the card.

Alice’s Cleaning Service

“My cleaning lady,” she explains with a poignant smile. “Help you straighten this place up.”

To cover my disappointment, I stick the card in my shirt pocket. For her, I’d gladly toss half my stuff in the back of Ol’ Paint and haul it off to the dump. Yeah, rhymes with chump. But by then I know her type. She’s always had everything-the looks, the dough, the men to walk on. Bored. Jaded. Blasé. Achingly lonely deep inside, soothing her ego with thrill after reckless thrill.

“May I borrow your phone?” At my curt nod she picks up the antique receiver from my desk and speaks into it softly. “You know the address, you know the flavor,” she says cryptically, and hangs up.

“So you’ll follow him,” she turns to me hopefully, “find out about my-”

“Um er problem,” I supply with nonchalant punctilio.

“Yes,” she whispers gratefully, looking down at the soft feminine hands clasped tightly in her lap. After breathy but professional goodbyes she is gone, leaving only a fleeting waft of exotic perfume.

Tail her husband, she had said. But this is the technology age, and Lance Sidesaddle is nothing if not modern. My Shady Brady and stained chaps, the hand-tooled snakeskin boots with one spur missing, the green print kerchief dotted with soup du jour-my all-purpose formal wear, disguise, and pajamas-are merely a diversion. Add to this a miniature microphone in my left nostril, totally undetectable, and I am ready.

Where to start? I glance at the matchbook the dame left on my desk. Glistening white, with Roxy and a phone number written in a feminine hand. On a hunch, I dial it.
“Roxy’s Pizza,” says a rough voice at the other end. Interesting, but I’m not that hungry. I pocket the matchbook.

I walk downstairs and out onto Whiskey Row. The air is cooler but a little sticky from the afternoon monsoon. Evening shadows ooze among the trees of Courthouse Plaza like warm caramel. Night falls with a soft thump. The shops are closed and dark, only the bars and restaurants still show lights and laughter. Sitting on that iron bench outside Annalina’s, I muse over the matchbook cover in the feeble streetlight-no doubt it holds some valuable clue.

I am jerked from my crime-solving reverie by sudden raucous laughter and the metallic clunk of coins into the metal ashtray beside me. I look up alertly as two young guys walk by toting a pizza carton.

“Free cowboy hats on North Cortez,” one says leeringly. His partner howls with evil merriment as they make their way down the Row.

Free cowboy hats. Hmmm. When I have time I’ll check that out. I peer into the metal bucket. Two quarters and a dime. But there’s also a piece of pocket lint and a matchbook. Hmmm. White and shiny. Kinda like the one my client left behind, only this one has oddball numbers written on it. 33-45-78. Strange, looks like her handwriting too.

I’m running that curious string of numbers through my lock-box data bank when I spot him. That guy. The type I knew would be mixed up in this from the first. Just up the street hopping out of a gold Mercedes ragtop. The man in the golf cap. Four-Woody III. Yah, him. I try to look innocuous, but from the corner of my eye I see he’s studying me as he approaches. He hesitates. Durn-hope he ain’t seen through my disguise. He drops a few coins in the metal ashtray at my elbow, walks down Montezuma and hangs a left on Gurley.

Whew, that was close. But I’m up $1.45 for the night, and the night is young. I turn the corner on foot as quickly as I can without seeming out of character. A rustler’s moon hangs ominously over Thumb Butte. Golf Cap is just ahead, making his way through swarms of everybodys calling Preskitt their hometown. As I pass the alley entrance behind the hotel I hear voices and evil laughter. Familiar evil laughter. Three men step from the inky blackness, blocking my path. From somewhere, a horse neighs nervously.

“Hey, it’s the twerp with the microphone in his nose.” Sneering giggles accompany this utterance as the three surround me in the doleful shadows.

I throw out the line I know will put them off balance, give me an edge, a leg up, an unfair advantage. “It’s your party, you light the candles.”

But they are at me like ants on a glazed picnic ham. I see a pizza box coming toward me. These are no ordinary muggers. Lying on my back while they pummel me senseless, I view with alarm a dark squarish shape plummeting from the velvet starry night high above.

“Look out,” I yell, rolling out of the way. My pummelers leap aside in a flurry of curses not suitable for a family publication. With a resounding whump, the massive object shakes the ground scant inches from my noggin.

When I regain consciousness, my assailants have fled and I’m once again alone in the dark. I sit up and look at the cubical mass sunk cornerwise into the warm asphalt. Dark green with gold trim. A lever and combination lock glint in the passing headlights. A safe. How odd. I have more important things to pursue at the moment, but who would be moving a safe at this hour? On a hunch, I look in the pizza box. Three pieces, still warm. I won’t be leaving those behind.

Voices just outside the alley. My keen detective instincts tell me I’m in luck. It’s Golf Cap talking to a blonde woman in a big white Lexus. He gets in beside her and they drive off, luckily for me toward where I’d parked Ol’ Paint. Laughing off the bruises and contusions, I’m able to limp through the Friday night crowds to my trusty steed and pull out right on her bumper. Of her car. They’ll never shake me now.

Oddly, as soon as I follow them south on Mt. Vernon, the shiny sedan somehow grows smaller in the distance and vanishes around the first curve. Gol durn! The blonde musta hit the gas. I hunt around for 15 minutes to a quarter of an hour, then park my rig on a quiet side street. Two-tone, primer red and primer gray, Ol’ Paint is the perfect camouflage for surveillance day or night. Highly modern for a ’77, she-or he-has a custom 8-track stereo, with a metal speaker in each window reminiscent of Senator Drive-in days.

Deep in thought, I open the pizza box.

Jackpot. Three slightly-mussed pieces of large with extra cheese. Yum. While I nibble at one I peruse the receipt. Hmmm. Anchovies, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, feta cheese. Not bad. Chewy though-sometimes instant gratification takes too gol durn long. But there, at the bottom of the receipt, an address on City Lights drive.

I drop Ol’ Paint into gear, and before you can say Magnum P.I. 38 times in fluent Hopi I’m parked next door to a ritzy palazzo, on the wrong side of the street but so what this is urgent. The blonde’s car stands silent in the driveway. The fancy place is quiet, too quiet, a dark outline against the velvety desert night. There are some cars parked a ways up the street, but not a soul around. I try the door of the gal’s Lexus. Fortunately she hasn’t set the alarm. On the passenger seat is a note:

For your wife I suggest something long and flowing

Long and flowing. Hmmm. I begin to assemble the available clues. My lovely client’s obvious agitation, her husband acting strangely lately. Husband vanishing into night with blonde in fancy car, ending up at this place in the dark. Suddenly it all adds up. I immediately see to the bottom of their fiendish scheme. Something long and flowing-they’re going to toss my shiny new client in the Agua Fria!

Now I know enough to bust them but good. And somehow I have to alert the cops.

Car lights lance up the quiet street. I have just enough time to hunker down inside the Lexus when a low-slung sports job pulls into the driveway right behind. Even in the dark, I know. There’s no mistaking that hat! The broad-brimmed dress hat makes its way to the front door, my client wiggling along beneath it to keep up. I need to do something! In just seconds she’ll walk in on a steamy scene and get herself tossed in the drink. I’m just about to shout out when a squad car with flashing reds slashes to a halt right beside me. Two uniforms get out and advance menacingly.

“Thank goodness you’re in time,” I say, pointing at the house, at the woman ringing the doorbell on the darkened porch. I’m groping for the most precise and professional words that will sum up the situation. “Her husband is sending her to swim class.”

But my refined detective senses tell me they aren’t buying it. This time, their heaters point right at me. Gol durn! The blonde’s Lexus has a silent alarm.

“Your name Lance?”

“Not really,” I reply with jocularity, “I’m just testing it prior to shipment overseas.”
“Alright Widewaddle,” one of them says over the dark wicked barrel, “Just can it, we know your little game.”
“Sidesaddle,” I correct the nice officer. “Stop her! If she goes through that door she’ll be-”
At that instant the door opens, all the lights in the house come on, and a chorus of voices yells, “Surprise!” The door slams, cutting off the babble of happy party chitchat and reggae music. I turn to face the cops.
“Lissen-” I begin.

“Now you listen, Slap-saddle. Somebody tried to boost a safe out of the hotel tonight. You were seen leaving the scene. A call came from your office to a pizza joint-a coded signal to start the robbery. The pizza was delivered to this address. The pizza box is in your truck. And here you are with anchovies on yer breath.”

“Dum-da-dum-dum,” the other cop hums with a menacing smirk.

“I was going to mention that,” I say earnestly. “Somebody tried to drop a safe on me in that alley behind the hotel. Three men-”

“Add to that attempted grand theft auto,” the other cop interjects.

I’m still holding the piece of paper from the blonde’s car. The cop takes it and reads aloud, “Sherri’s Dress Shop, Scottsdale.” Durn, he’s looking at the wrong side.

Through the front window I see my client parading among the partygoers. She’s changed clothes, and now wears a floor-length chiffon gown. A nice look for her, but it doesn’t add up.
“Here,” I say, thinking quickly. “Her handwriting.” I hand over the two white matchbooks. The cop peruses the feminine penmanship:

“Roxy? 33 – 45 – 78?”

My sidekick powers wake briefly from their snooze to impart a quick news flash: Mrs. Delbert Four-Woody The Third is just the type to charm a safe combo out of lonely hotel managers anywhere.

“Say,” I drawl. “What if that wuz the combo to that safe?”
The cops exchange glances of stark disbelief. “That’s incredible. Did he just make a useful suggestion?”

“Call Dispatch,” the other replies with resignation, “check it out.”

My head’s reeling. This all points to a very bad girl indeed. Tragic-all the looks, prestige and money she could want, yet she’s running a safecracking operation. Pluswhich the irony-her husband’s throwing her a surprise party and she thinks he’s up to something fishy!

In minutes it’s all over. Mrs. Four-Woody The Third, attired smartly for the occasion in a long flowing gown with matching handcuffs, disappears into the back of a police cruiser. She has enough time to toss a vicious barb my way.

“Here’s booking at you, kid,” I reply curtly.

I don’t mind if she’s a little peeved with me. If you can’t annoy bad guys, there’s little point to being a defender of the peace. The dish thought she had a clean sneak but ole Lance blew her house down, dropped the dime, chilled her caper. She won’t fry, but she’ll have plenty of time to cool off.

Oddly, I find myself thinking of fish and chips with a cold beer.

Can’t help but wonder though, why it is. Every time I meet someone I could really go for, she’s just about to be arrested.

As I walk tiredly back to Ol’ Paint, a note on the windshield flaps in the fitful night breeze. Most likely a thank-you from the cops for busting her little scheme wide open. They’re good ole boys, but they have a few issues about accepting help. Well, it’s a love note alright, but it involves a chat with the nice judge downtown. Parking on the wrong side of the street. Indeed. Resolutely I shoulder my burden-just one more lesson in humility.

Alone again in the dark, I nonetheless feel the warm glow of satisfaction, the sense of lending a helping hand, the humble pride of the unsung hero. The girl is gone, but her devious plan has been foiled. Preskitt, the town I love, will pass another night in peaceful slumber. It’s not that late. Maybe I’ve got time to check out those free cowboy hats.

The twin pipes of Ol’ Paint burble contentedly as I ghost through the streets of my quiet town.

Lance Sidesaddle's Funnybusiness Card

Desert Songbird and the Stagecoach Bust

By Lance Sidewaddle

Sundown. End of another busy day on Whiskey Row. But while the day was ending for most honest Preskitt folks, my job as defender of the peace was just beginning. Yeah, you’ve heard about me.

Lance Sidesaddle, private detective.

As evening shadows stretched across the Plaza, I was having a double-wide vanilla latte with cinnamon in Saint Mike’s. My finely tuned hearing picked up furtive, whispered talk from three men at a nearby table. Something about a stage to the Valley. Ridiculous! There hadn’t been a stage run out of Preskitt for nigh unto 80 years. The three mugs caught me staring, and quickly left. Not so quick that I didn’t catch a few miniscule but telling details. One carried a stand-up bass. Another wore a single red boot and one dancing slipper. I filed these facts in my lock-box memory.

I stepped over to the table they had vacated, its surface slick with café mocha and a clutter of empty cups. There, written on a cappuccino-stained napkin, were strange cluelike symbols. It looked like a tic-tac-toe layout before the X’s and O’s were filled in. Just the words “Gurley,” “Montezuma,” and “stage.” That word again. Symbolic, piquant even, harking back to Preskitt’s storied past. But what could it mean? Then it came to me with the force of a stampede: this was code! My unerring detective sense was ringing like the firehouse alarm. These guys were up to no good. I marched up the Row for a chat with my friend Dick.

Dick tended bar at the Jersey Lilly, heard all the talk, the rumors. I puffed up the stairs (they really should get rid of those). The room was crowded and the music was fast. I squeezed in at the bar beside the old county doctor. Doc had just requested his usual, an almond daquiri. He took his first sip and frowned. He waved Dick over.

Is this an almond daquiri, Dick?”

Um, no… it’s a hickory daquiri, Doc.”

Finally I got a chance to ask about what I’d heard, about who would be interested in a stagecoach. I flashed the napkin and Dick nodded knowingly. But somehow tonight he’d lost his usual composure, and his answer was cryptic.

Check out 129 ½,” he suggested furtively, not meeting my eyes.

AM or FM?” I asked. But all I got was a quizzical look and a view of Dick’s broad back as he headed down the crowded bar. No matter, I would make quick work of this clue. At the top of the stairs I turned to survey the noisy room, looking for possible clues while calling no attention to myself. Next thing I knew I was tumbling in a heap to the stained sidewalk far below. Gol-durn! They really should get rid of them stairs.

I limped across the darkened Plaza and down Cortez to where I’d parked my truck, Ol’ Paint, conveniently in the center lane for a quick getaway. The cops knew my game and left me alone. I fiddled with that fool radio for musta been ten minutes but all I got was static. Where was that station? Finally I asked a couple cruising back to their car if they could help me find one twenty nine point five. They said I was parked right in front of it.

Knew that,” I bantered. “Jes’ wanted to see if you wuz locals.” I missed the guy’s reply but his lady friend giggled all the way down the block.

Inside the joint it was all tables full of dressed-up folks, loud conversation amid the popping of corks, and aromas of chicken parmesan. From the jazz trio up front, the soothing sibilant syllables of a sexy songster. Wow. Her green satin gown was tight in all the right places. Long hair flowed over her bare shoulders with the luxuriant sheen of chicken gravy. Wanda Homefree, the night club singer. Her glistening red lips massaged the sultry lyrics of Love for Sale. I gave her a cursory glance.

The hostess blocked my path between the tables, enviously eying my authentic Western garb the shapeless straw hat and greasy chaps, the hand-tooled snakeskin boots with one spur missing, my green print kerchief flecked with this morning’s scrambled egg. She hinted rather broadly that the soup kitchen was in the next block. I didn’t argue. In this game ya can’t afford ta blow yer cover.

I’d just been smacked in the butt by the door when I saw him. That guy. The man with one red boot. Yeah, him. He was rolling a cigarette one-handed and giving me the old stinkeye. Over his shoulder I could see Ol’ Paint parked in the center lane. Somewhere in the distance a horse neighed nervously.

I ankled over to where he stood, reaching for the one-liner that would stop him in his tracks. Make him think. Catch him off guard. Give me the advantage. In the blink of an eye, I ground my shin into his boot, smashed my cheek into his fist, and before he knew it, I was gracefully laid out upon cold concrete.

He laughed at me. That was all. Laughed at me. It was then I knew that he was afraid of me.

When I regained consciousness the sidewalk was empty. Undeterred, I was limping up what I fondly called The Hill when this dainty hand snaked out of a darkened alleyway and yanked me in. She was only an outline in the dimness but she had an iron grip on my vest. I was just trying to recall the name of her expensive Parisian perfume when a loud clang made me jump into her arms. A beer keg had crashed to the pavement where I’d been the instant before. Rolling down the sidewalk with a metallic sound, it finally fetched up in the doorway of an antique shop, hissing suds. I made a note of the address in case I got thirsty later.

Thanks,” I said as she put me down.

Don’t mention it,” she said. “I like a man who can express his inner terror.”

That unmistakable voice. It was the singer. You know, the chirper, the tweeter, the warbler. Homefree. Yeah, her.

I dusted off my most dependable line. “What’s a swell kid like you doing in

We don’t have time for that now,” she said quickly. “There’s something you need to know.”

In the darkness she took my hand in both of hers. For a few fleeting seconds in the life of this vast universe, a strange tickling sensation danced its way across my astonished palm. Her gentle touch withdrew, a last fragrant waft of her perfume, and she was gone. There was more I needed to ask her. Much more. A few fading clicks of her stiletto heels and I was once again alone in the dark. Alone, that is, except for my mission and the memory of her touch.

I stepped over the trail of foamy beer and headed toward the Courthouse, working my way along Gurley toward Montezuma, deep in thought. Just a minute those names! In the dim halo of a streetlight, I pulled out the napkin. It still had the tic-tac-toe thingy and the words Gurley and Montezuma. Could mean something. On a hunch, I turned the napkin over. My eyes widened in wild surmise as I read the list:

1 Do laundry

2 Meet at Italian place

3 Midnight stage

Jackpot. But there was something else. The streetlight shone on my open palm, revealing three words in a flowing, feminine script:

Follow the garlic

That strange tickling sensation Homefree had written a message on my hand! How did that fit in?

But no matter, I had the napkin. It was all there, notes on their fiendish plan. Gurley. Montezuma. On a hunch, I walked to the corner of Gurley and Montezuma and eased myself back into the shadows. I didn’t have to wait long. Three men walked up and stood waiting for the light to change. One carried a double bass. Another had garlic on his breath. Follow the garlic. The trio was nervously eyeing something across the street while attempting to look casual. I followed their gaze. At the curb outside Saint Mike’s stood a big van with a white trailer hooked up to it. I was still running the various clues through my lock-box mind: stage, the street names, garlic. But I saw nothing suspicious.

The light changed, I followed the three across the street. Something fell to the asphalt in the middle of the crosswalk. On a hunch, I picked it up. A recipe book, Fifty Italian Dishes. I walked up to the three men who stood talking quietly in the shadows beside the van. I held out the recipe book.

Say, fellas, one of you dropped your

Gwan, scram,” they said in three-part harmony.

The man with one red boot eyed me nervously. I was ready to forgive and forget but he wasn’t having any. Somewhere in the distance a horse neighed nervously.

At that moment an unmarked car screeched to a stop at the corner. Two plainclothes got out. Walking purposefully toward us, one of them shouted, “Halt! Stop right there! Chill, dude. Don’t move a muscle! Freeze!” And so on.

The three men looked frantically at one another, then sidled away quickly, ducking into the nearest alley. One whistled a merry tune. As they rounded the corner the guy with the double bass had a slim lead, but that wouldn’t last. The plainclothes walked right up to me.

Alright Sidesaddle, the game is up.”

Did you see those guys?” I exclaimed, pointing. “They were going to hold up the stage.”

The cops looked at each other, rolling their eyes. “Don’t change the subject, Sidesaddle, we’re onto your tricks.”

Yeah,” the other said. He was looking down, writing something. A ripping sound and he shoved a piece of paper hard against my chest. On a hunch, I looked at it. A parking ticket. Say! Must be some kind of clue.

Listen Sidesaddle, this is the last time we go easy. If you want to park your truck, do put it in a parking place. Once in a while. Humor us, okay? And one more thing.”

I affected my most nonchalant drawl when I rejoined, “Yeah, and what might that be?”

There is no center lane on Cortez.”

I was just formulating a penetrating comeback when a crowd of folks flooded from the hotel lobby and shoved past me, climbing into the van. Some tossed bags into the trailer. That’s when it struck me. Even with no thanks from the cops for my sleuth work, I knew these honest folks could go peacefully about their innocent lives, unaware that they had been shielded from the forces of evil.

Hi there,” a cool voice said in my ear. The dame. The girl singer. Homefree. Yeah, her. She placed a warm hand on my arm.

I don’t know how you did it, but thanks for getting rid of them. I’m riding standby and that creep had a double bass.”

I offered her the book, Fifty Italian Dishes.

You should keep that as a reward,” she said with a cute little smirk. “How can I ever thank you?”

I was just beginning to count the ways when she stepped past me and vanished inside the van. As they pulled away, I had one fleeting glimpse of that angelic face in the lights from the hotel. They headed east on Gurley and faded into the night, taillights flickering out of sight past the Hassayampa.

I was heading back to my truck when fate played a hand. In the distant streetlights, I saw a towtruck cross the intersection. Good ole boys, keeping our fair city neat and tidy, removing all the scofflaw junkers. But then I did a double take. Ol’ Paint was hooked up to the back, dragging its muffler on the pavement. The rig headed noisily off into the night. No matter, it saved me the walk. I turned back up Whiskey Row, heading for my office. The streets were deserted now, only a couple cars stood mute in the soft nighttime breezes.

The girl was gone, but the bad guys’ devious plan had been foiled. And I would never, ever wash away her cryptic message.

Alone again, I felt the warm glow of satisfaction, the feeling of lending a helping hand, the quiet pride of the unsung hero. Preskitt, the town I loved, would pass another night in peaceful dreams.

My single spur chimed a contented rhythm as I headed for my office in the quiet street.

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